Glee, Compassion and Talking to Atheists

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

I know it’s been a few weeks since the religion episode of Glee, but I can’t stop thinking about a conversation that transpired between (Christian) Mercedes and (Atheist) Kurt. In the episode, Kurt’s dad is in the hospital in a coma after a heart attack. Meanwhile, other events also inspire a discussion of some students’ desire to sing “spiritual songs” in the glee club, where Kurt makes clear his objection to religion, primarily based on the church’s treatment of women and gay people. When Kurt is in a traumatic situation, his friends respond by praying over his dad and Mercedes invites him to church.

The scene between Mercedes and Kurt has stuck with me, because I’ve been there. I have friends who feel like Kurt does – they see the pile of injustices that have been endorsed and justified by religion across history, and they want nothing to do with it. I see where they are coming from, though I obviously have a different response. Because of these friendships, I have found myself in a few situations like the one Mercedes does in this episode: an atheist friend is experiencing a tough time, and I’m praying for them, but I don’t know what to say about it.

Mercedes says she doesn’t know how to be around Kurt during this tough time, and then makes a dramatic statement: “I know you don’t believe in God, and that’s okay. But you have to believe in something bigger than yourself.” She also invites him to church and tells him she’s asking her whole church to pray for Kurt’s dad.

Inviting Kurt to church, and offering him prayers are, I think, good things to do. When I’ve been in Mercedes' position before, I’ve told people I’m praying for them, and even though they don’t believe in God or in prayers, they appreciated it. Once, I shared my uncertainty about how to talk to people who don’t share my beliefs with an agnostic friend. She told me that my prayers mean something to her because they mean something to me, and this has made me bolder in expressing compassion with the language of faith to those who don’t share my faith.

Two things bother me about Mercedes’ statement: it makes it seem like all beliefs are the same, and it’s dismissive of Kurt’s strongly-held position. I don’t think a hard time in someone’s life is time for lectures and imperatives, but I also don’t think it’s a time to brush off the specificity of your own belief. I would rather Mercedes say something like “I know you don’t believe in God, but I do, and I would like to pray for you, because I think it’s the most powerful thing a person can do.” Atheist blogger Amanda Marcotte’s response to the episode makes me uncertain if any religious statement would come across as compassion to her, but I wonder if her response would be different if the interaction at hand was a real friendship, and not a fictional one. What I do think is a vague statement about believing in something simultaneously dismisses Atheists and people who follow a real, specific faith.

How do you respond to atheist or agnostic friends who are facing terrible circumstances? How do you show Christ’s love without seeming condescending or smug? These are questions I continue to struggle with, and maybe the ways a person can receive God’s love through God’s people is unique to their situation, but I think Christians have more to offer than generic suggestions to believe in something.

Beth Felker Jones’s similar take on the episode turns to the incarnation as an answer, and I think we're on the same path here. She's pointing toward one thing that makes Christianity different from believing in just anything-- we believe in a God who made himself flesh. And also a hint at how to be more Christ-like in our interactions.

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